Perhaps the most interesting aspect of politics in Washington these days is not the steady flow of hasty executive orders and unproofread tweets, but the struggle to define the fundamental architectures of power in this new era. Ironically, a similar process is at work in Moscow, as Vladimir Putin, his eyes fixed on his next presidency, carried out a fundamental reconstruction of the frameworks of the Russian state. Policy may be relatively stable at the moment, but the ways it is formulated and executed are decidedly not. To put it another way, the theatre is closed for reconstruction.
The sedate and secretive command centre of the late Putinist system has become the Presidential Administration (AP). It broadly manages domestic policy, foreign affairs, electoral strategy and economic goals, and even sketches the outlines of Russia’s ongoing political war with the West. From its offices inside the Kremlin and around Staraya Square and Ilyinka Street, it has become not just the essential mechanism whereby Putin governs Russia, but also the main source of the views, briefings and reports that inform his understanding of the country.
This was certainly not a point lost on the ambitious and able Sergei Ivanov, former head of the AP and undoubtedly a man who would be king, or at least tsar. There seems no evidence that Ivanov was doing anything more than biding his time for a potential vacancy, but to be generally regarded as eager for advancement and smarter than your boss is always a dangerous thing in an authoritarian system where incumbency is nine-tenths of legitimacy.
Ivanov was honourably but conclusively dismissed in August 2016, and under his successor, the reassuringly mediocre Anton Vaino, the AP has been engaged in a quiet but comprehensive reorganisation. Under first deputy chief of staff Alexei Gromov, its foreign policy directorate has become the coordinating hub for Russia’s political “active measures” campaign abroad. Meanwhile, his counterpart at the domestic policy directorate, Sergei Kiriyenko, is looking to strengthen regional policy and is even taking a look at the utility of the over-the-top propaganda which has become a staple of Russian state TV.
In the process, management of the visible political apparatus went with Kiriyenko’s successor, Vyacheslav Volodin, when he was dragged – by all accounts kicking and screaming – from the AP and installed as speaker of the State Duma in October. He has likewise been putting his mark on the legislature. The last Duma was allowed, maybe even encouraged, to become an object of fun and a source of often toxic lunacy. This may have been simply a by-product of a system which gives parliamentarians a role half-way between legislative cannon-fodder and reality show diva. Or it may have been a deliberate strategy to ensure it never challenged the executive for power or authority.
Either way, a new circus master seems to be putting together a new circus. The current Duma is no more significant as a body, but is involved now in more significant matters and is doing so with new discipline and coordination. It is dutifully lobbying for the 2018 presidential elections to be held on March 18, the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Volodin himself is all but stumping in Europe, blessing United Russia’s new pact with the populist nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, shortly before a similar accord with Italy’s Lega Nord.
A third, crucial aspect of the political substructure undergoing reconstruction is that of the regional governors. These figures are at once Moscow's local eyes and ears (and, if need be, strong right hand), but are also expected to be effective managers, both economic and political. They are charged with the often-formidable task of whipping out the vote come election time, ensuring no dangerous build-up of resentments, and encouraging local economic growth.
Since mid-2016, there has been a steady reshuffle of these office-holders, with the most recent changes (in Karelia, Novgorod, Perm, and Ryazan) seeing a brace of younger technocrats elevated. In part, the hope is presumably that they will be more effective than their predecessors. However, that would just be a pleasant by-product of a process largely intended to ensure that governors lack political muscle and local power bases and are therefore dependent on Moscow. After all, this becomes a particular priority at a time when regional leaders such as Andrei Vorobev (Moscow oblast) and Sergei Morozov (Ulyanovsk) are not only doing the usual – building their own networks of clients and consequent legal and not-so-legal business empires – but also the unusual, criticising the government.
In short, arguably the very reason for the apparent absence of politics in Russia at the moment is precisely that the visible drama is currently in hiatus while the theatre is being rebuilt. Everything now is about 2018, with Putin’s intended electoral triumph and then his fourth and likely final presidential term. For a president whose eyes are firmly fixed on his historical legacy, this play needs just the right stage, scenery and seating.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.